Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
Taking the Long View
June 14, 2013
By Brant Himes
Reading James Bratt’s new biography, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Eerdmans, 2013), reminds me that political progress seldom comes easily. Democracy is about debating the great issues, from education reform, labor laws, and suffrage in Kuyper’s day to immigration reform, gun control, and the budget in our own, and then capitalizing on the ebb and flow of opportunity to find a consensus. This can be an excruciating process. Yet Kuyper’s life and work demonstrate that participating in democracy is less about exercising raw political power in order to squash the opposition and more about acting from a consistent and thoroughly grounded world and life view. Party platforms change; ultimate loyalties should not.
Kuyper provides an apt starting place for such a Christian world view: a commitment to the Lordship and sovereignty of Jesus Christ over all areas of life, an understanding of God’s work of common grace for the common good, and a willingness to apply the principles of sovereignty and grace to form key partnerships across diverse coalitions. Kuyper was a master at working out and applying these principles in his own day, and he certainly leaves a legacy for us to consider today.
The concept of common grace for the common good is especially important today in America. Our politics remain startlingly divisive; stubborn party idealism is tearing apart the civility of our society. Efforts to effect change are too often met first with hostility and then with stalling and avoidance, instead of constructive dialogue. One wonders if a national commitment to a shared vision of the common good is still possible. Perhaps, then, there is a need for less polemic and more common grace. What is the common good without recognition of a common grace that can be extended to all?
With Bratt’s biography, we can learn something of great importance on this point. The “Neo-Calvinism” of Abraham Kuyper that emerged during the late nineteenth century and continued into the middle of the twentieth century provides a rich tradition of theological engagement of the common good in the wider political realm. Kuyper (1837-1920), a Calvinist theologian and minister, served as Prime Minister of the Netherlands from 1901 to 1905. During that time, he worked to advance a society that allowed for the unique expressions of religion (or no religion, if preferred) in all aspects of public and private life. To this end, he founded the Free University in 1880 as the first Dutch university to exist “free” from state or denominational control, organized a new political party and church denomination, and successfully edited two newspapers for over forty years. Kuyper’s overarching vision made room for, and eventually encouraged, all religions to participate publically in society, thus forming the basis for a culture of liberalism and pluralism that has become one of the defining characteristics of democratic society.
Yet perhaps one of the biggest advantages to reading a biography on a figure as influential as Kuyper is how it encourages a long view of God’s work and common grace in history. The world of politics can be so riddled with anxiety (Kuyper suffered multiple breakdowns throughout his career) that we can too easily overlook the places of gracious progress. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1917 – three years before his death – that Kuyper finally saw the Dutch constitution give equal funding to all schools and grant all males the right to vote (universal suffrage was still to come). Throughout his entire career, Kuyper remained faithful to his Calvinist principles because he could see the impact and influence of God’s work in society in both small and large ways. Some days brought a new friendship with a “papalist” across the aisle, other days would find his party being swept into ruling power, and on other days it was all he could do to pen a Sunday devotional for the faithful readers of his newspaper. Through it all, Kuyper understood that a common grace for the common good is only possible when we ourselves are willing to step out in faith and extend the hand of grace to others.
Sometimes, all we can muster is a feeble witness to the work of God’s grace in the world. Yet in the midst of our own political anxiety, we remember that God’s grace alone allows us to take the long view: God alone is faithful to rule, to sustain, and to inspire hope for a better world.
- Brant Himes is a PhD candidate in historical theology and ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”